Yesterday I completed my tenth speech for Toastmasters, which means I have completed requirements for the “Competent Communicator” designation. My second speech in this series was inspired by the phrase that I have made the title of the blog, and I’ll use my first post to explain where it comes from.
Gary Paulsen is an author of outdoor adventure books for children and young adults. In an autobiographical book about his experiences with his own dogs over many years, Paulsen writes at one point, “They are wonderful, and, I think, mandatory for decent human life.” The first time I read that in My Life in Dog Years (it’s on page 2) it sounded a bit over the top, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I like it because it expresses a basic truth about the relationship between people and dogs, although it does sound absurd the first time you hear it.
Historians take for granted that a text written in a now-dead language by people who lived halfway across the globe hundreds or thousands of years ago requires careful thought and analysis in order to understand accurately. They get into the habit of approaching any text they read with the same suspicion that what seems to be the obvious meaning might not be. This can be counterproductive when you find and react to deeper meanings in an email from a colleague who threw words together quickly without much thought. But books by published authors usually involved some careful thought, so they are fair game.
The biggest problem with Paulsen’s proclamation about the importance of dogs is the word “mandatory.” But Paulsen is a thoughtful person and clearly did not mean to say that human decency is absolutely impossible if you don’t live with dogs. “Mandatory” here must be meant more like the way a speed limit is mandatory. You can ignore a speed limit and all may go well for you. The right driver in the right vehicle on the right roads could drive all day long at 100 mph on roads where keeping the speed under 70 is mandatory. Conversely, if you obey the speed limit that’s no guarantee you’ll stay out of trouble. Certain drivers are unsafe at any speed. But in general speed limits are there for a reason and everyone is better off if most people obey them. So the idea is that having a dog is like obeying the speed limit. Makes sense for most people.
As for “decent human life,” I take that to refer to positive, mutually beneficial relationships with the people around us. And not only with people but with all aspects of the environment we live in. To be decent is to show care and consideration for other people, animals, and even the earth itself. So to paraphrase, living with a dog can help a person develop positive relationships in uniquely effective ways.
Paulsen doesn’t elaborate, but I can. Perhaps the most important way a dog can do this is by helping you feel good about yourself. That’s important because a prerequisite to positive relationships with other people is a positive relationship with yourself. In other words, your ability to have a positive impact on others is limited if you are not a happy person yourself. Anyone who has not had a dog might wonder, how then can a dog impact how happy you feel?
Imagine for a moment the following scene. You are coming home from work after a long hard day dealing with cranky people and insane deadlines. You walk in the door of your house and what do you find? Your spouse had a hard day too and wants to vent about it. She also wants to remind you to wash the windows and mow the lawn. Your daughter is busy watching YouTube videos of skateboarding squirrels and hardly notices you’re there. Your son is reading the sports page and will only acknowledge your presence when he needs to ask for money to go out with his friends. Your cat is, of course, sleeping. But your dog … what is your dog doing? Your dog can hardly restrain himself for joy that you’re home. His ears are back and his mouth is open, his tail is wagging so hard his whole body shakes, and he barks with joy. Now, the spouse and kids love you too, but the dog makes that palpably obvious. There are few things in the world that can be repeated every day and still effectively give you an uplifting feeling about yourself. Having someone be so ecstatically joyful just to see you come home from work each day is one of them.
Also, it has been shown that the most effective way to make yourself happy is to do something that makes someone else happy. Trying to do that for spouses, children, and other people is worthwhile but is a complex business that is fraught with peril. People are complex and sometimes nothing can make them happy. And if you have kids, your efforts to make them happy in the long run will often make them rather unhappy in the short run and they will do their best to make you even more unhappy about what you’re doing. But with a dog all you have to do is say the word “walk” and he jumps and barks and wags his tail for joy. And the dog is always ready, whenever you are. He spends most of his life just waiting for you to give the word that will make him jump for joy.
There is a reason why dogs have been called “man’s best friend.” A dog’s unconditional love is unique. People love too of course, but personal relationships are complex and often difficult to keep on a positive course. Having a dog recharges your batteries for tackling the difficult relationships positively.
And what is it that makes positive human relationships so difficult? One factor is the human tendency to be dissatisfied with what we have. We tend to think we need something we don’t have to be happy – more money, more possessions, more social status, more of everything. That often puts is in competition with other people. It is a truism that our value system would change radically if we thought we would die tomorrow. Money and possessions would lose their meaning, we would think more about how we treat other people and the impact it has on our legacy, and we would appreciate little things like relationships and walks in the woods. Having a dog helps you remember your own impermanence. There is a reason why every famous dog story, including recent best-sellers such as Merle’s Door and Marley and Me, ends with the dog dying. Dogs just don’t live as long as we do. It’s like having a child who you know will predecease you. A child who teaches you what it’s like to treasure every moment and be happy with the life you have rather than pine for what you don’t have.
I can think of many other ways that dogs have a positive influence on people. But ultimately I like Gary Paulsen’s statement not by analyzing it to be true but because it reflects my own experience. I got a dog myself about a year ago for the first time in decades. And that dog has definitely helped transform my life and my relationships. Speaking for myself, “a dog is indeed mandatory for decent human life.”
In my next post I’ll say something about why I apply the title to history — or rather what I’ll call a realistic understanding of history — as well.